BRUSSELS, Belgium - “A new, positive mood in biotechnology“ in Europe is being ascribed in part to the work of the European Union-sponsored Biotechnology and Finance Forum.

The forum, which in May held the first European conference bringing together biotechnologists and investors, is a joint exercise with the European Association of Securities Dealers. It is a key factor in what Bruno Hansen, the European Commission's (EC) director for life sciences and technologies, has saluted as “the coming of age of European biotechnology.“

The conference was among the forum's “first initiatives“ to help “a new generation of European entrepreneurs to start up and flourish,“ by creating the “nurturing environment and sustainable interactions between the biotech and finance spheres in Europe,“ Hansen wrote in the foreword to a just-published report on the conference.

“To create a strong and vibrant business community in biotechnology, we have to develop a spirit of enterprise and risk taking,“ he said, putting his finger on the “traditional reluctance of European scientists to talk to industry and vice versa,“ and on the lack of “an entrepreneurial climate in Europe where the researcher can think of business and where innovation in industry can flourish.“

Hansen said the forum's conference “brought together under optimal conditions“ people “whose paths rarely cross: researchers, entrepreneurs, industrialists and investors.“

Battle Of Biotech Continues

Meanwhile, the battle for hearts and minds in Europe continues to rage over biotechnology, with the next critical breakpoints - coming up after the summer vacation - likely to be debates on reforming two major European Union (EU) rules on research and market release (Directives 90/220 and 90/221), and on the outcome of the dispute within the EU over marketing of genetically modified foods.

The environmental organization Greenpeace, an inveterate opponent of unbridled biotechnology development, has taken the opportunity presented by the start of the Austrian presidency of the EU in July (the EU presidency switches between member states every six months) to outline what it would like in the environmental field during the second half of 1998. High on its list is genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Emphasizing what it calls the public's concern and skepticism on products developed through genetic engineering, Greenpeace has urged a prudent approach. It said the current review of the 1990 directives provides an excellent opportunity for opening the discussions. It called on Austria to involve all interested organizations and to ensure a well-publicized and transparent debate.

However, there is a new energy in official EU circles for seeking a better deal for biotechnology as a result of some of the changes in view over recent months. Those changes include the evidently successful link-up with the financial community and the adoption of the biotechnology patents directive earlier this year. The patents directive was adopted after a 10-year effort and was seen as a beacon of hope by the beleaguered biotechnology sector and the European regulators who attempt to help its development.

There already are attempts by the biotechnology sector to get its retaliation in first on some of the impending discussions, with a series of preemptive, pro-biotechnology events.

In addition to the continuous activity of the industry itself, there is growing evidence of concrete initiatives taken by the institutions of the EU to develop and maintain positive momentum.

As European Industry Commissioner Martin Bangemann stressed recently, the EU has to create the right regulatory environment for biotechnology, and that means winning over skeptics. (See BioWorld International, July 8, 1998, p. 3.)

Concrete Initiatives To Boost Biotech

So the next few months will see a rash of meetings sponsored or patronized by European Commission and European Parliament members trying to ensure that the ongoing debate over biotechnology does not all go the way of its critics.

For instance, the first European Symposium on Applied Genome Research will take place in Brussels Nov. 26 and 27. It is being run by the newly formed section on applied genome research of the European Federation of Biotechnology.

Speakers from across Europe will look at subjects such as yeast genomics, human genome mapping and sequencing, functional genomics, proteomics, bioinformatics and antisense molecules.

Other upcoming European biotechnology conferences announced for the autumn include “Patentability of biotechnological inventions: a new start for Europe,“ a conference in Brussels on Oct. 13 organized and chaired by Euro-MP Willi Rothley, vice chairman of the European Parliament's committee on legal affairs. Rothley was the key parliament figure in getting the EU's new biotechnology patent law on the statute books.

A symposium on “Yeast as a cell factory,“ in Vlaardingen, the Netherlands, Nov. 30 to Dec. 2 will discuss scientific advances. A special session, to which Euro-MPs will be invited, will examine public perception and GMOs.

In July 1999 the 9th European Congress on Biotechnology will take place in Brussels simultaneously with the BIOTOP '99 biotechnology exhibition.

The congress will consist of four parallel symposia over four days on biotechnology in the agricultural, health, environmental and chemical sectors as well as a four-day program covering life sciences, bioinformatics, engineering, and physical and social sciences. *